Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Fishing Village

The port in Akwoeda

You can always hear the waves crashing in Akwoeda. Wherever you go in this fishing village on the western coast of Ghana, this roar is a constant reminder of the presence and strength of the ocean.

Day 1

I arrived at the lodge near Akwoeda in the early afternoon. It was just about what I expected : a tourist lodge on a remote beach in the low season with a bar made from an old boat (aptly named 'Why Not ?') and a scattering of buildings. Dorms were the cheapest option, so I put down my bag on the second floor of a deserted bed house meant for 16 and stepped out to look at the beach.

Signs at the lodge warning of riptides

My first impression was bummer. I passed a sign warning of rip tides and watched as the waves exploded in the surf and dispelled my notions of a paradisical surfing trip to a deserted beach in a remote part of the world. Looking up the beach, I saw a child digging a hole in the sand and then squatting down to poop. Further up I saw a beautiful fishing village sprawling out on the beach leading up to a small forested island jutting into the ocean. It was at this point that I realized I had two options. I could either spend my vacation at the lodge, drinking and writing and looking out at the water. Or I could walk to the village, suffer the usual attention and harassment reserved for foreigners, maybe make some friends, and explore. If I chose the first, I knew that it would turn into a bittersweet experience that has repeated itself many times in my service where we volunteers try our best to recreate a situation that made us happy back home but don't quite make it. I would, for example, be reading outstretched on a chair by the beach while villagers walked past in front of me with basins on head and hoes in hand slogging home to Akwoeda from the field. On the other hand, I could do the Peace Corps thing and join the villagers. I could make a fool of myself learning the language, maybe find some fun to do. That's what I did.

The beach near Akwoeda

I walked up the beach to the village and cautiously approached the first group of buildings. A man, drawn by the children crying 'My friend !' at me, emerged from a pink cinder block building facing the beach and introduced himself as Jimmy. The building was his 'spot' or bar. Jimmy was a tour guide from the community who showed tourists the sights at a price lower than they would pay the lodge to go on outings. He showed me his card and I decided he was legit, so I paid him 4 cedis (about 1,000 CFA, or $2) to show me the village.

Jimmy's spot

Akwoeda is divided into Old Town and New Town. Old Town is what I saw from the lodge, stretching out on a peninsula between the ocean and a river that empties out just behind the island. A bridge over the river leads into New Town. A steep hill rises up behind the river mouth with a clinic and school at the top. Old Town is a maze of houses, shops, and payotes built on a crowded wedge of land. New Town is spread out over and behind the hill and has more cinderblock houses. It stretches into the mainland and has a more modern feel with power poles and electric pilings promising the arrival of electricity in the next few years.

Akwoeda's power station

The village market and center is just beside the bridge on the Old Town side. This is where the fishing boats slide under the bridge into the ocean in the morning and return to rest in the sand at night. As I approached this market for the first time, I began to realize why Jimmy seemed to repond 'Yeaaah' to all my questions. 'I-yeah' or 'Eh-yeah' was the response to good morning ('ahiooo'), good afternoon ('mwa-ha'), and good evening ('mwa-dwoe') in the local language, a melange of Ahinta and Tree. I tested these greetings out with the women selling 'baonku' (a paste blend of corn and cassava flour cooked in a leaf) and 'bantchi' (a rice or cous cous made from cassava) next to the boats. They laughed at me when I greeted them. Then they talked about me in local language with the women nearby and proceeded to ask me for money and gifts and to marry them.
 Jimmy with women at the market

We had arrived at the village center at perhaps the liveliest time of the day. Fishermen were bringing their boats back in under the bridge in the high tide, and while they unloaded there were children playing in the water and on the sand nearby. Music blared out from a shop in Old Town, turned up to drown out the sound of the generator powering it, and the air babbled with a thousand different conversations punctuated by laughter and shouting.

 Speaker blaring over the sound of the generator powering it

This first day, Jimmy and I took a walk around the ocean side of the hill so I could see a bay that was the local surf spot. I insisted that we take the long way back on the road. The skins and seeds of mangoes littered the road, and we were given some to eat by a quiet group of kids heading the other way on the road. Along the road were giant piles of palm nut clusters, and Jimmy informed me that they were sold to a factory in Takoradi that makes palm oil and sends a truck along the road to collect them. Posts were set beside the piles so that a scale could be mounted and the nuts weighed before being taken away. Characteristic of many other roads I've seen in West Africa, I witnessed the bulldozer that had been used to make the road rusting on the side with a woman selling mangoes off the treads. The workers and local people often do not have the tools to fix these machines when they break, so if the government does not come and fetch it after the road is done they rest where they were put.

 Palm nuts piled beside the road

That first night I bought three fresh tuna fish in the village which Jimmy and his son cooked for us along with a pile of 'baonku.' I got owned at checkers three times over by the group of kids playing behind Jimmy's spot, then sat back to alternate between watching pieces move on the checkers board, the sunset, and the waves. Before we dug in, we each had a shot of 'apateshi' (the local palm liquor, known in my village as 'sodabi') and I had a mini-shot from a glass twice as big as a thimble of 'apateshi' that had been soaked in roots. We ate well, and the fish was likely the freshest I'd ever had in my life. In my village, 10k from the coast on the Benin side of Togo, people get most of their protein from dried fish. There are only a handful added to the sauce with each meal. In stark contrast, the villagers of Akwoeda seemed to down one good size fish per person per day. It was the most delicious fish I'd eaten in a while. Jimmy walked me back along the beach to the lodge, and after hanging out with some med students from the UK I took a shower and collapsed on a bed under the mosquito net.

Looking east along the beach from Jimmy's spot towards the lodge
Day 2

Early the next morning, I walked inland to the road and took it to the village. Many people were headed away from Akwoeda to the fields. I greeted them all, and many responded with 'Akwaaba !' (meaning welcome) to which I responded 'Madase.' (thank you) with phonetically flawed diction. I had decided to play tourist again today and have Jimmy show me the 'primry and secondry forest' further out the way we had come the day before. Really I just wanted someone to walk with out to see the brush. We had a lengthy discussion of the price, which had gone up to 10 cedis from the day before because we were to see the community's forest and the proceeds would go to the group managing the forest and not Jimmy's pocket.

Power poles on the road leading west out of New Town

I finally gave in and we walked across Old and New Town. I greeted every person we passed and stopped to chat with several fishermen along the way. We passed the electric poles, got on the dirt road, then took a right on a path headed uphill away from the sea. On the way to the forest we passed by forests of palm trees, most of which were much larger than those growing in the corn and cassava fields of Togo's Maritime region. The forest was basically what I expected : the cassava fields ended abruptly at a line of enormous trees that seemed to devour the light. We walked through and back. Giant mahogany and other trees towered over the path and butterflies fluttered out at us from the 'secondry' forest trees. Jimmy informed me that I would need to come through very early to see the animals because women scared them away walking to their fields on the other side of the forest in the morning.

Where the cassava fields end and the forest begins
On the way back I began to note the differences in agriculture between Akwoeda and Anfoin. In Anfoin, the soil is all clay and sand and the land is flat. Near Akwoeda, the full of small rocks and the land is hilly. The hoes they use are narrower and working the field is more like wacking than scraping. After emerging from the forest, an old woman working with her grandchildren showed me how to make the mounds to grow cassava. She first reached out to the far side of the mound and dug out a hole to pull towards her, whereas in Anfoin we would go near to far since the hoe cuts easily into the soil. On the walk back, Jimmy informed me that they use chemical fertilizer with the corn just like in Anfoin. They also use fertilizer on the palm trees, pouring it into a trough dug around the base of the tree.

Cassava being grown in rocky soil

As we crossed over the bridge on the way back, I stopped to check out a group of fishermen all seated on the ground repairing one of the massive nets sent out with the big boats. I had seen a lot of people sitting with nets while passing through the village but not really thought too much about what they were doing. Up close I realized that, piece by piece, they were repairing all of the holes the length of the net by hand. The process was like crocheting : they would find a hole, tie one end of a string at the start, then use a specially designed needle to stitch up the hole loop by loop. One of them tried to teach me how to do it, but we quickly realized that I was not a net-repairing savant and it would take hours to learn. He then invited me to return the next morning to go out with them on the boat. This last day ended up being the best day.

Fishermen repairing nets by the bridge

I headed back to the lodge, ate a lodge restaurant dinner with dessert, and wrote some by the light of the petrol lamp before folding up under the mosquito net.

Day 3

I got out of bed at 4 and walked into Akwoeda along the rocky road by flash light as the first light began creeping over the cloudy horizon. My perception of the village had changed markedly since the first day. Today I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do – I wanted to be on a boat.

I walked through Old Town ('Ahioooo', 'I-yeaaaah') and went straight to where the fishermen were getting ready to head out with the tide. After standing awkwardly and smiling for a while, one of the fishermen from the day before came up and greeted me in English. I found later that his French was actually better than his English because he came from Ivory Coast, where like in Togo French is the national language. He motioned toward the boat and I nodded. Three men were seated on the ground, still repairing the same net as the day before. I ate some bread with peanut butter and waded out into the river to help push the boat into deeper water.

The outlet to the ocean

I had a magical moment standing up on the cross planks of the boat as we ducked under the bridge and motored towards the breakers off the bay out to sea. I thought 'This is amazing' as I stared at the island and the bridge and the hill and the people. And then the boat lurched and I thought 'Oh s##t !' as I went down and grabbed on to the side. All the other fishermen laughed at me. They had made standing and moving up and down the boat look so easy. Much to my dismay, stepping barefoot between cross planks when they are slippery with sea water and the boat is being rocked by ocean swells is not as easy as the local fishermen make it look. I practiced standing up straight as we headed away from land and then west along the coast. The oldest fishermen walked past me down the boat, muttering a prayer and sprinkling some kind of liquid on the boards. Ahead of me, a young man about my age named Elijah stood solidly with his arms crossed, his legs automatically making the slight adjustments allowing him to balance while I struggled and occasionally thrust out my arms to stay standing.

Elijah spoke English the best of the 10 other members of the crew, and he became my teacher for the day. He taught me that 'elenae' means boat in Ahinta while Akwoeda vanished back in the distance. He taught me that 'epu' means sea while the light house on Cape Three Points came up on our right. And through the rest of the day, he taught me how to fish.

These men fished in a similar fashion to the fishermen on the lake I wrote about in a previous blog post. Instead of using bait to lure the fish, they make noise to scare the fish toward the net. This is how it went :
  1. Much of the time at sea was spent standing on the boards and staring out at the water, watching for fish and then shouting directions at the man steering the motor as we approached them. On their own, the fishermen would not have been able to find the fish. They watched for birds that live on the coast to dive and would head towards where they were eating. These birds were the lifeline of the fishermen – they depended on them to tell where to cast their nets.
  1. If they spotted fish, there would be a crazy change in mindset on the boat as the men went from staring majestically to shouting and motioning excited as we approached the fish. The boat always sped counterclockwise around the school. At the right moment, the youngest boy on the boat would grab the net and jump off the back of the boat as it began circling around. He would take the rope used to reel in the first side of the net and begin to make a racket in the water to get the fish moving.
  1. At the same time, the net would be flying out of the back of the boat as we circled around the fish. Elijah would stand at the front of the boat, still shouting and motioning. I handed him stones which he launched into the water ahead of the boat. I sat down while he danced on the front boards as the boat sped and bobbed. If there was another boat across from us, they would turn on their motor and circle so that the noise would help drive the fish toward our net.
  1. When the net was all out, we would complete the circle back to the boy in the water. He jumped in with his hand still on the first rope, and the fishermen looped this rope and one attached to the other side of the net around a post at the middle of the boat on the left side (opposite the motor).
  1. Floaters kept the top of the net at the surface while sinkers kept the bottom down. To reel in the net, half the crew would man a rope at one side of the boat and half on the other. They pulled for all they were worth while two people (the oldest and youngest members of the crew) tightened the ropes around posts at the head and foot of the boat. The ropes had many large metal rings attached to them to weigh down the line. As these came into view the motor man would chant :

To which we would respond :


  1. Next came the net. After tying the rings to the middle post we would begin pulling in the bottom of the net, essentially forming a giant bowl under the school of fish we were trying to catch. We pulled the sinkers until they all came up, then began pulling in fishing line. All this time the floaters would be drawing closer and everyone would be looking expectantly at the water.
  1. If all went well the final strech of net would be flopping with fish. The crew at the foot of the boat would empty this into a cache below the cross boards.
  1. Then would come the resetting the net for the next cast. Three guys would stand at the back of the boat in between two of the cross boards and wildly pull the net in and pile it such that it could easily fly out again. All along the boat the boards had no sharp edges, so the net could easily slide across and back into position. Finally, someone would bale water out of the bottom of the boat and I would pull the rope back through the metal rings before we began looking again for fish.

We cast five or six times the day I was out. Sometimes we scored big with the fish, but a couple times we came up with nothing. A couple times the net got tangled up and the crew expertly used the drifting of the boat and the steering oar to untangle it.

Around noon we motored further offshore and the fishermen let the boat drift while they took a siesta. I helped the young guys to cook some of the fish we had caught. The men had thought of everything necessary and brought it, right down to a charcoal stove and a pot to cook the fish. One of the boys cleaned out the pot with a handful of net and picked out a fish for each man. I watched as he sat on the deck and cut the fish into three pieces. He slipped a thin line of innards out of the body and tail while a second boy reached his fingers deep into the gills in the head and pulled out whichever part was not edible up there. We cooked the fish in the pot – one boy holding the pot steady with the rock of the waves and tapping on the lid to keep from burning his fingers while I fanned the fire. The fish was tuna and it was beyond delicious.

Salt water cleans everything off. They cut the fish on a cross board that had been washed with salt water. We ate off a cross board that had been washed with salt water after using it to wash our hands. All the dishes were washed in the sea, and the men would dip over the side of the boat and clean off mangoes in the water before biting off the tops and sucking out the juice.

Rain began to sprinkle on and off during our last casts, and finally we headed back east towards home. I sat with Elijah and another boy at the front of the boat responding to the usual questions (Are you married ? Why not ? Do people eat this in America ? How is Obama?), joking and smiling and being content. Another man with a natural grin and squint to his face sat ahead of us. All of the crew were related to each other in some way – the motor man was Elijah's wife's uncle.

Even after layering on sunblock and wearing a hat, my day at sea left me burned to a crisp. My hands were raw and in pain from pulling on the rope and the net. But as we pulled into the harbor and the music and laughter came drifting over the water, I felt pretty good. I saw a boat named 'Respect' and I was like 'word.'

The crew divided up the fish between themselves. I came out with a sackful of fish. I took some back for the other tourists at the lodge and that night I came back into town that night to eat with Elijah. We had caught one fish that was long and pointy and might have been barracuda. His wife cooked it up and buried it in ground hot pepper and palm oil. After the tuna, this fish was like going up another sky higher in Dante's Paradiso : incomparably more awesome. I ate for half an hour straight, hand to mouth, before Elijah walked me back along the beach to the lodge.

The men could every day except Tuesday, when for some reason it was strictly forbidden to the point of taboo. The guys I went out with were all ripped. Maybe its the diet – they eat a ton more fish than your average West African. And even though the work was hard, they had smiles on their faces up til when we rolled back under the bridge.

I got up before the sun the next day and travelled all day, crossing the border at dark back into Togo. I've come to realize this experience that my time in Africa has had an effect on me like the inescapable sound of the waves crashing on the shore in Akwoeda. Like trying to recreate a situation that made me happy in the United States but quickly becomes bittersweet because I am reminded of reality by my surroundings. Whatever I do these days, wherever I go, I find the past two and half years speaks from the background.

Standing on the bridge from Old Town to New

Friday, May 10, 2013

3 Champs

A path through the champ

'Champ' in French means 'field.' When the Togolese use the word champ, they are talking about the strips of land where they grow food. The Maritime region of Togo where I live is just heading into the midst of the rainy season, and I often find the road into town much less crowded than before because most of the village is out working the earth. Some of their champs line the road. Others are far, far away. The high population density in my area means that any space that is not taken up by living or business becomes a champ. For miles around, the vast majority of the once-upon-a-time brush is divided up into squares and cultivated.

I have been working with friends in the champ to better understand the lives of the farmers I hope to help. While my background and experience are far different, my hope is that scraping at dirt with a hoe under the hot sun will give me insights into how to better promote development initiatives that fit into the Togolese lifestyle. It also gets me out of the house, is good exercise, and builds character.

The champs of 3 friends in particular have stood out to me:

Champ 1:

A short woman with a wide smile lives in a mud house on the other side of the paved road from me. One day I offered to go out to work in the champ with her, expecting to go off somewhere into the African brush. Instead, we went to a field right beside the paved road between our houses. This champ is wedged between the wall of a family compound and the potholed road that cargo trucks take to and from the cement factory further north. On the far side, pieces of cinder block are mixed into the soil with the corn and cassava. Next to the road, the crops grow slightly better because of all the trash thrown from bush taxi windows into the champ.

I woke up with the sun and headed over to her house. She laughed when I took the basin off her head and put it on mine to carry it to the champ. We walked together back towards my house and then took the slight detour off the path into the rows of crops. Land in my area is measured in 'lots' and hectares – four lots make up a hectare. Laborers are paid by the number of lines of crops they tend to, and they are paid more for longer lines.

In addition to corn and cassava, the woman also planted peanuts in this field. Unfortunately, there is a weed that looks very similar to a small peanut plant. To a villager, the difference is black and white. To me, it was like close shades of gray. I began to start down my first row when the woman cried 'Azi!' at me, meaning peanut in the local Ewe dialect. I realized that in my enthusiasm I had chopped off several peanut plants. I resolved to pay more attention but as the day wore on and I began to sweat more, I decapitated more peanut plants. She set me eventually to the task of hoeing the rows with no peanuts and I was much happier.

I began to notice after observing the woman the tricks she used to spot peanuts. Seeds were planted at approximately equal distances from each other so that the position of one could be used to determine the approximate distance of another when moving up a row. Next, after she had estimated where the next plant would be she pulled up the biggest weeds first until she spotted the peanut plant. Even then many of the plants were still tiny, and her long experience growing peanuts made them stand out much more to her. I had never even seen a peanut plant before I came to Togo.

The sun climbed high in the sky. I was sweating on the short walk to get to the champ, and by 10 in the morning the peanuts were hard to spot through the dried sweat fogging my glasses. Despite my putting many peanuts to rest, my friend showed up afterward at my door with bowls of corn paste and sauce which I ate under the mango tree while she joked with my host mother.

Champ 2:

Yawovi is one of my best friends in village. I have worked alongside him in the champ through all parts of the growing season: scraping off the field before the rains come, poking holes and planting seeds in them, weeding around plants with a hoe as they grow bigger, harvesting fruit, and finally conserving or selling them. Yawovi's champ is further off the paved road than the previous champ, a five minute walk along a path away from village. The path winds between many other fields that all seem the same. However, on closer look it is obvious that every farmer is in a different stage of work. We are now in the month of May and while some fields have corn almost ready to harvest in others it is just sprouting. Some farmers have planted different combinations of corn, cassava, and / or peanuts in the field. Some fields contain only rows of crops, while others are punctuated by palm and coconut trees.

Yawovi has an incurable wound of gout on his foot which makes the champ work tough. Like other men, he usually has a few shots of sodabi, the local palm liquor, to get him fired up before we go out to work in the field. The land he works lies next to a giant baobab tree. He has his own champ, but the land he works is rented. Renting land is a normal practice throughout my village. While systems of land tenure with champs being passed down through generations do exist, family land has been divided up so many times between many sons and daughters that they can not grow enough to support themselves and their growing numbers of kids. This means that the poorest farmers grow crops on rented land. Profits for subsistence farmers are tiny, and paying rent puts more of a burden on villagers like my friend Yawovi.

In addition, renting land also takes away any individual incentive to improve soil quality. Agroforestry, cover cropping, and other field management techniques take more than a season to yield benefits, so if a person is only renting a lot for this year they want to get as much out of it as possible before paying up. Luckily, there is a technique that makes crops shoot up magically toward the sky and bear bigger fruit: chemical fertilizer. To apply chemical fertilizer, farmers poke a small hole next to the base of the plant, pour in a capful of fertilizer, and close it up. Corn right now is huge in fields where the farmers were able to afford and apply 'l'engrais chimique,' but in the other fields the corn looks wilted, waiting for its lifeline. But chemical fertilizer degrades the soil. Cultivating a champ year after year saps nutrients out of the soil so that it eventually becomes impossible to grow anything without the fertilizer.

After working and sweating with Yawovi, I try to imagine the time of his great grand parents. He has told me that there was a time when crops planted in the soil would produce decent harvests without any other assistance than the constant work of the farmer. When farmers had enough land that they could leave part of it fallow. But with the exploding population and the increased pressure to produce food that time is far passed.

Champ 3:

On a Saturday a couple weeks ago I biked the 12 kilometers out to another friend's champ to work. His champ, also rented, is out towards a village northeast of mine called Atitogon. As I pedaled behind his oldest son in the cool early morning, the path got rougher and bumpier and the weeds crept closer to the bike tires. We arrived, set our bikes under a mango tree, and I watched as he threw up rocks into the tree to make riper mangoes rain down. When his father arrived we walked over to the rows and got to working.

In Champ 1, I could hear music blaring out from shop speakers as I tried to make peace with the peanuts. Out in a champ this far in the brush, the only sound was the wind in my ears. We worked until noon without hardly stopping. I felt like a clown trying to scrape the weeds around the barely discernible corn plants on the ground, many of which had not yet even sprouted. After a couple hours my back was burning and I had likely made a massacre of more corn plants than paying me for the rows I had done would ever be worth.

I finally arched my back and looked up to see that my friend's son had made it through two rows to my one. He made weeding look like an art, smoothly guiding the hoe around even the seeds that had not sprouted yet and shifting the cassava branches between the rows from side to side. Looking at him, I saw that he would alternately put his elbow on his knee to release the strain on his back. Positioned thus he would reach across the other side of the row with the hoe and effectively extend his reach to scrape more area. Years of practice had also given him the feel to scrape only the top of the soil to avoid uprooting the deeper planted corn seeds and conserve energy. On top of this, he was ripped and strong like all the other teenagers in the area.

In this last champ, the land is still fertile enough and far away from extensive human disturbance to produce with out fertilizer. But my friend is still going to put some in the soil this year to make the plants grow even better. He reasons that rain this year has been unpredictable. While farmers can not tell when water will fall from the sky, they can rely on the surety that the white powder mix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium that comes in a giant white sack with a scientific label will make their crops grow better. For the moment.